By Tom Robotham
For the past year or so, my life has been marked by a series of unsettling disruptions. It all started last spring when my 15-year-old car, which I loved, finally bit the dust. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it turned out to be harbinger. Not long afterward, the university where I teach announced policy changes that threatened to put an end to classes I’d created and taught every semester for eight years. Around the same time, I lost a regular writing gig for another magazine. Meanwhile, my neighborhood supermarket, where I’d been shopping for nearly 30 years, closed its doors. As if that weren’t enough, my neighborhood pub, where I’d shot pool every Thursday for five years, got rid of its pool tables.
I know—boohoo, right? Nothing lasts forever. Still, having to adjust to all of these changes in a short period of time left me craving some sense of continuity. Then, a couple of weeks ago, on one of those gorgeous spring days we’ve been having recently, my mind turned to baseball—a touchstone of continuity in my life since I was five years old.
One memory after another came to mind—first and foremost, the ritual of opening a new pack of baseball cards: the unfolding of the wrapper; the pleasingly familiar aroma of that hard stick of bubble gum; the feeling of its fine powder on the cards themselves—and finally, the sense of anticipation as I looked to see which players I’d gotten.
In those days, my favorite player was Mickey Mantle. If I’d held onto his 1961 Topps card, I could sell it today for a pretty penny. Recently I saw one offered on ebay for $1,700. But no matter. The memory of getting it that year is far more valuable to me.
So is the memory of going with my father to Yankee Stadium on bat day, and receiving a full-size Louisville Slugger (as opposed to one of those lame mini-bats they started giving out later) with Mantle’s signature stamped on it. That I still have, along with the glove my father used when he was a boy—one of those flat-as-a-pancake mitts from the 1930s.
I continued to admire Mantle until he retired when I was 12, but in 1964—after my father took me to the brand new Shea Stadium, built to coincide with the opening of the World’s Fair, I became a diehard Mets fan. Not that I ever grew to hate the Yankees. I’ve never understood the concept of hating a rival baseball team. But there was something about the Mets that charmed me. Perhaps it was because they were new at a time when life was still new to me. Or maybe, ironically, it was because they were so awful in those early years—loveable losers who nevertheless played each game with renewed determination and hope.
Because they were so bad throughout most of the 1960s, the Miracle of ’69 was all the more special. The sense of excitement my friends and I felt as the Mets’ luck turned in August remains palpable to me, as does the memory of listening to post-season games on my transistor radio while riding the bus home from school. And then, of course, was that final moment when they won it all. Elated, I jumped on my green Schwinn Stingray and rode six blocks to my friend Al’s neighborhood where a group of us celebrated “our” victory.
I didn’t pay as much attention to baseball during my later high school years, and on through college, but after I returned from college in 1978, my enthusiasm was renewed. The Mets were pretty bad, once again, but that didn’t dampen my devotion. Plus, there was an upside to that. My best friend John and I could go to Sunday afternoon games on a moment’s notice and get great seats at last-minute discounts.
In 1986, however—perhaps sensing something in the air—he and I bought shares in a block of season tickets, purchased by his older brother. The idea was to take turns using the box—and in an extraordinary stroke of luck, my turn came up for the seventh game of the Series, which John and I watched 10 rows back from the right field line, just past first base. I still remember Jesse Orosco crashing to his knees with arms raised in victory—and I still remember how hoarse I was for two days afterward, from all the cheering.
A few years later, when I moved to Norfolk, I was delighted to learn that it was home to the Mets Triple-A farm team—and that plans for a new waterfront stadium were in the works. I missed going to Mets games, but there was something deeply appealing about watching minor-league baseball in a small stadium.
In 1999, in fact, I immersed myself in the sport more deeply than ever. A year earlier I’d become editor of Port Folio Weekly, and one of the benefits of that job was that I could “assign” myself any story that interested me. I decided I wanted to spend a week with the Tides for the duration of a mid-season series of home games and write a story about the experience. During the course of the week, I attended daily batting practice, talked with the players and coaches, and watched games from the dugout. I’ve written hundreds of articles in my career, but to this day that remains one of my favorites.
Even more resonant, however, are memories of serving as an assistant coach for my son’s Little League team, and my daughter’s softball team. Another item among my baseball memorabilia is a ball autographed by all the members of my son’s team, and I cherish it every bit as much as I do my father’s mitt and that Mickey Mantle bat.
Oh—and the memories of playing catch, first with my father, and then with my son and daughter: a little sliver of the game, sliced off and transformed into its own enduring pastime.
What is it about baseball? There are so many reasons for its enduring appeal. Like other sports, it satisfies our tribal instincts—our desire to belong to a group bound by shared passion for something.
But other than that, baseball is not like any other sport. For one thing, it’s not ruled by the clock—and in this day and age, as the pace of society is accelerating at breakneck speed, I find great comfort in that. Theoretically, a game—or for that matter, a single at-bat—could go on forever. Moreover, it ain’t over till it’s over, as Yogi Berra put it. I like basketball, and I enjoy football here and there, but let’s face it: The idea of being able to “run out the clock” is pretty pathetic. In baseball, hope doesn’t die until the last out. And sometimes miracles happen. My father once told me about a game he’d watched in which the Yankees were down 9-1 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs and two strikes on the batter—and the Yankees came back to win it.
There’s also the beauty of the field itself—the sensation of walking through the stadium tunnel and emerging into the light before a vast expanse of manicured grass, finely raked infield dirt and clean white lines. It’s a pastoral game that goes right to the heart of America’s pastoral myth—the game and the myth have been inseparably linked as early as 1845 when the Knickerbocker Club of New York City began playing in a Hoboken, New Jersey park called Elysian Fields.
But above all, it’s a game of resilience. I’m not just talking about the fact that it has a long season and that each new day brings of modicum of new hope for every team and player. I’m also talking about the people who’ve threatened its very existence, out of greed. This year, in fact, marks the one hundredth anniversary of the “Black Sox” scandal. There have been many other scandals since baseball took hold as our national pastime after the Civil War. The game has survived them all—and in the process, it really hasn’t changed that much. There are few things in 2019 that would be familiar to a time traveler from the 19th century. But if Walt Whitman—one of baseball’s most ardent fans—could take in an afternoon game at Harbor Park, I suspect that he would be pleased. For my part, as I struggle with life’s change-ups, I find comfort in the fact that I can still enjoy a pastime that meant so much to him, to my father, and to countless other fans that came before me.